FROM THE AETHIOPICA TO THE RENAISSANCE: RECOVERING A STAGE TRADITION OF POSITIVE REPRESENTATION OF AFRICANS IN EARLY MODERN ENGLAND
Donawerth, Jane L.
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This dissertation looks at the connection between Heliodorus's fifth-century prose romance, An Aethiopian History, certain Renaissance texts, and how these texts helped influence an alternate representation of Africans in the early modern world. Through their portrayals of Africans, early modern English playwrights frequently give the impression that Africans, especially black Africans, were people without accomplishments, without culture. Previously, however, this was not the case. Africans were depicted with dignity, as a tradition existed for this kind of representation--and Renaissance Europe had long been acquainted with the achievements of Africans, dating back to antiquity. As the source of several lost plays, the Aethiopica is instrumental in dramatizing Africans favorably, especially on the early modern stage, and helped shape a stage tradition that runs alongside the stereotyping of Africans. This Heliodoran tradition can be seen in works of Greene, Heywood, Jonson, Shakespeare, and others in the motifs of crosscultural and transracial romance, male and female chastity, racial metamorphosis, lost or abandoned babies, wandering heroes, and bold heroines. In Jonson's Masque of Blackness and Masque of Beauty, I establish a connection between these two masques and Heliodorus's Aethiopica and argue for a Heliodoran stage tradition implicit in both masques through the conceit of blanching. In The English Moore, I explore how Richard Brome uses the Heliodoran and Jonsonian materials to create a negative quality of blackness that participates in the dramatic tradition of the degenerate African on the English Renaissance stage. With Othello, I contend that it is a drama that can be seen in the Heliodoran tradition by stressing certain motifs found in the play that derives from the Aethiopica. Reading Othello this way provides us with a more layered and historicized interpretation of Shakespeare's protagonists. Othello's nationality and faith make his exalted position in Venice and the Venetian army credible and logical. His nobility and heroic status become more sharply defined, giving us a fuller understanding of the emphasis he places on chastity--both for himself and for Desdemona. Instead of a traditional, compliant, and submissive Desdemona, a courageous, resourceful, witty, and pure heroine emerges--one who lives by the dictates of her conscience than by the constraints of societal norms. Recovering the tradition of positive portrayal of Africans that originated from the Aethiopica necessitated an examination of eleven plays that I contend helped to frame the dramatic tradition under investigation. Six of these plays are continental dramas, and five are English. Although three of the English plays are lost and the other two are seventeenth-century dramas, their titles and names of their protagonists, like those of the six extant continental plays, share the names of Heliodorus's hero and heroine, making an exploration of the continental plays imperative to facilitate their use as paradigms in reconstructing the three lost English plays. These continental dramas show that plays whose titles derive from the Aethiopica itself or reflect the names of its major characters follow Heliodorus's text closely, enabling an investigation of the Heliodoran tradition on the early modern English stage. Recovering the Heliodoran tradition adds to the exploration of racial politics and the understanding of the dramatic tradition that constrained and enabled Renaissance playwrights' representation of race and gender.